Mexico's Thought Police
FBI-trained forces allegedly tortured political
by Kent Paterson
In These Times magazine, May 2000
Controversy is raging in Mexico over the creation and deployment
of a new police force largely made up of soldiers. Officially
formed to fight drug lords and kidnappers, critics charge that
the 5,000-member Federal Preventive Police (PFP) is instead being
used by President Ernesto Zedillo to repress political dissent
during the run-up to elections in July.
The PFP was formed last year under the watch of Francisco
Labastida, Mexico's former interior minister and current presidential
candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party
(PRI). The PFP's mission is to enforce federal laws against everything
from drug trafficking to illegal tree cutting. Last year, President
Clinton praised the PFP as a positive step forward in Mexico's
campaign against drug traffickers and sanctioned FBI training
for the new police unit.
But according to the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution
(PRD), the PFP is actually the Mexican government's new counterinsurgency
brigade, employing both physical and psychological warfare tactics
against government critics. "The government is throwing gasoline
on the fire and fanning the flames of social conflict," says
Jose Sanchez, a lawyer for six prisoners from Guerrero state who
claim PFP officers tortured them.
In November, the PFP abruptly transferred the prisoners from
the state penitentiary in Acapulco to the maximum security Puente
Grande prison hundreds of miles away in the state of Jalisco.
The Mexican government claims that the so-called Acapulco Six
are connected to two of the guerrilla groups operating in Guerrero,
the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) and the
Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR). But the Acapulco Six deny the
charges and consider themselves political prisoners because of
their involvement in the PRD.
Virginia Montes, a PRD member and one of the Acapulco Six,
claims that PFP officers tortured her and the other five prisoners
during their move to Puente Grande. "Police hit my ears and
threatened to kill me and my entire family," Montes says.
"They kept asking us for the names of the leaders of the
EPR and ERPI, to which we answered, we had no knowledge of anyone
in these groups and knew nothing about them." She says the
warden of Puente Grande warned the prisoners to keep their mouths
shut about the tortures or face solitary confinement.
Montes and her husband Guillermo Martinez-both PRD members-were
arrested in Acapulco last October for the murder of fellow party
member Marco Antonio Lopez. Lopez was found shot within hours
of local elections that toppled the PRI's 70-year hold on the
local government. Other PRD members cried that Montes and Martinez
were framed, and the police eventually dropped charges. However,
federal authorities then filed new charges against Montes for
alleged weapons possession. She denies the charge, but was convicted
and is now serving 10 years.
Another member of the Acapulco Six, Begnino Guzman, is the
leader of the Peasant Organization of the Southern Sierra Madre.
In 1995, Guerrero state police shot and killed 17 unarmed farmers
and members of his group near the village of Aguas L Blancas.
Guzman is now serving a 13-year sentence for charges stemming
from a protest that resulted in destruction of government property.
Meanwhile, U.S. assistance to police forces in Guerrero is
on the rise. Zeferino Torreblanca, mayor of Acapulco, has invited
the FBI to train officers this spring. Among the agencies expected
to participate in the FBI program is the state police. In recent
years, state police agents have been arrested for their involvement
in kidnapping rings and have been accused of numerous human rights
violations, including robbery, torture and murder. One such incident
was Aguas Blancas. The FBI attaché in Mexico City has declined
to comment on U.S. involvement with the PFP or other branches
of Mexican law enforcement.
The PFP also has been involved in quashing student protests.
In February, 3,000 PFP personnel evicted student strikers from
Mexico City's National Autonomous University (UNAM) campus. Critics
denounced the move as a violation of Mexico's long tradition of
university autonomy. Predictably, members of the PRI, including
Labastida, defended the use of the PFP in the UNAM conflict as
a last resort.
In the wake of the UNAM strike, Wilfrido Robledo, commander
of the PFP, was ordered to testify before the Mexican Congress.
According to PRD Sen. Felix Salgado Macedonio, secretary of the
Mexican Senate's Defense Commission, Congress doesn't even know
what the current budget of the PFP is. Salgado says he expects
Robledo to testify this spring.
PFP units are now frequently seen on the streets of Mexico
City, but their presence has had little effect on the bloodletting
between drug rings, which has recently claimed several lives.
Nonetheless, the Zedillo administration announced in March that
it was setting up five new PFP training academies.